In Colombia, they call him “Superman” after a young Miguel Ángel López fended off knife-wielding thieves who were trying to steal his bike during a training ride.
Despite getting stabbed in the leg, the then 16-year-old López not only saved his bike, but later raced with it during the Vuelta a Colombia Juventud, a national junior bike race. The TV announcer recounted the story, saying he was flying up a mountain just like Superman.
The nickname stuck, and throughout the 2017 Vuelta a España, the 23-year-old Colombian is racing like a real-life super-hero.
On Sunday’s long, grinding climbing stage that was reminiscent of the unending, high-altitude climbs back home, the Astana climber reconfirmed his nickname, and more.
“It was a magnificent day,” López beamed at the line. “It was a long attack, and a long climb, and I really suffered above 2,000m, but I had the legs to make it. And here we are.”
Just like he did when he beat back the would-be bike thieves, 23-year-old rode fearlessly to win the stage, and surge into podium contention.
López followed a long-distance attack from Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) with 26km to go. He later dropped the soon-to-be-retired Spanish superstar, and reeled in an early surge from Adam Yates (Orica-Scott) with 4km to go. He then soloed home to his second stage win of this Vuelta a España.
It was vintage Superman, a rider whom many are already comparing to the best years of his more famous compatriot Nairo Quintana, during 2013 and 2014 seasons when “NairoMan” could drop everyone in the peloton.
“When you have a natural climber like López, you don’t hold him back when he is feeling good,” said Astana sport director Bruno Cenghialta. “We already knew that López has quality. Now he is showing it.”
López came into this Vuelta impatient to prove himself in a grand tour. The winner of the 2014 Tour de l’Avenir crashed out of his debut in the first week of last year’s Vuelta. Other crashes slowed his progress, but now back to full strength, he’s showing signs of only getting stronger as this Vuelta unfolds.
On Sunday, an on-form López backed up his stage win at Calar Alto on Wednesday and his second-place Saturday in dramatic fashion to prove he’s the strongest climber of this Vuelta.
Astana came to the 2017 Vuelta with Fabio Aru as their GC captain, but the team is obviously giving López space to fly.
“We were following team orders to help Fabio, but they gave me freedom to go with some early attacks,” López said. “The team is helping Fabio, but they are also showing confidence in me. After just missing the stage win yesterday, I couldn’t let them down today.”
After winning Sunday, López jumped from 10th to sixth overall, now 2:51 behind race leader Chris Froome (Sky). In little more than a week, he’s climbed from 20th to sixth, just 43 seconds off the podium. He’s now 33 seconds ahead of Aru on GC.
Is Sky getting worried about López? So far, they’ve been content to let him ride away because they didn’t view him as a direct GC threat. Now that he’s closer, they won’t be so generous. With two more hard climbing stages on tap — stage 17 to Los Machucos and stage 20 up Anglirú — Sky won’t giving López any more rope.
By attacking near the bottom of the long, final double-climb to the summit at 2,500m, López revealed he’s not afraid of any mountain or any rival. Last year, he won the Tour de Suisse in equally spectacular fashion.
“When I went early with Contador, I had my doubts, because it was so far away,” he said. “I am still too young to win a grand tour. Maybe in the future, why not? Right now, things are going well.”
López already leads the young rider’s category, and could win one or maybe even two more stages. And with the way he’s climbing, the final podium is a realistic goal. At 23, he’s the revelation of this Vuelta.
Just like Superman? Everyone back in Colombia already knew that years ago.